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Capitol Punishments: Drawn into chaos

A tortured court decision on redistricting, and toxic power dynamics on campus.

A tortured court decision on redistricting, and toxic power dynamics on campus.

Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

What fresh hell is this?

Remember when the Wisconsin Supreme Court (SCOWIS) decided to go with Gov. Tony Evers’ tweaked redistricting maps in March? And for a brief moment, we all thought, “Wow, that wasn’t as horrible as it could have been. And now it’s done.” 

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The maps SCOWIS approved still gave Republicans a slight advantage, but not to the degree they had under their notoriously gerrymandered 2011 maps, nor that they were pushing for with their own proposed legislative maps. Everybody kind of won, so we could call it a day, right?

Nope! Hours after SCOWIS handed down its decision, Wisconsin Republicans filed to have the map stayed as they submitted the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Having a majority apparently wasn’t enough. 

And on Wednesday, SCOTUS handed down a completely baffling, self-contradictory ruling rejecting Evers’ state legislative maps while keeping his Congressional ones, weeks away from when candidates have to submit paperwork if they’re running this fall. 

A rundown of all the news headlines alone show that news editors at least didn’t know what to make of their decision. Is it a win for Evers, since SCOTUS kept the Governor’s proposed maps for U.S. Congressional districts? Is it a win for Republicans, because the Court scrapped Evers’ state Senate and Assembly maps? SCOTUS sent the case back to SCOWIS, which ruled in favor of the maps in the first place, so what is the end game here?

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Unfortunately, this appears to be another attempt to undermine the Voting Rights Act (VRA)—a cherished pastime for the Roberts Court. The point of contention with Evers’ maps is that they formed a seventh majority-Black Assembly district. During the public hearing on the maps and oral arguments before SCOWIS, legislative Republicans argued that their maps were superior because they were ostensibly not drafted using data on race. 

The unsigned SCOTUS decision states:

“[The petitioners] argue that the court selected race-based maps without sufficient justification, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause… We agree that the court committed legal error in its application of decisions of this Court regarding the relationship between the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and the VRA.”

Further down the decision recaps case law on the VRA and states, without irony:

“A State violates §2 of the VRA ‘if, based on the totality of circumstances, it is shown that the political processes leading to nomination or election in the State or political subdivision are not equally open to participation by members of [a minority group] in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.'”

So, SCOTUS said the race-based maps were chosen without justification, but argues that at the same time, the VRA requires states to create districts that allow minority groups to participate in the political process. 

Real questions: how is a state supposed to know if its maps allow sufficient participation under the VRA, if the maps are not made using data on race? And while the courts try to figure that one out, how are current and potential legislative candidates supposed to figure out which district they will run in so they can file paperwork by June 1?

The Journal Sentinel laid out SCOWIS’s options—including reapproving Evers’ maps—for moving forward. Whatever they do, they need to decide, fast.

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UW professors’ power trips

This week the Wisconsin State Journal published a great five-part series on academic bullying at UW-Madison. After the suicide of engineering PhD student John Brady, who died in 2016 but whose identity wasn’t released until 2019, the power dynamics between tenured professors and graduate students that enable toxic environments were thrown into sharp relief. 

Sadly, according to a recent survey of faculty, not much has changed. A 2016 faculty survey found that 40 percent claimed they had witnessed such behavior; by 2019 that had increased to 50 percent (although that increase could be due to greater awareness). 

But this abuse goes beyond the nine employees the State Journal identified who were investigated for hostile and intimidating behavior, four of whom are still at UW-Madison, four at other institutions, and one retired. It goes beyond any one department or lab, and beyond UW-Madison. 

Abuse is endemic to that power dynamic—one where a graduate student’s ambitions, career, even their ability to remain in the country if they’re international, all rest disproportionately in the hands of an individual who faces little risk of consequences for their behavior.  

Interestingly, it appears it wasn’t all the training, reporting, and university statements that led to fewer reports last year, but the pandemic. Remote interactions mediated through technology apparently gave bullies fewer opportunities. So what happens when everyone returns to working in person? 

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank stated in a press release that the university “strives to ensure that our learning and working environments are places where everyone feels valued and can succeed.” 

While that’s a very nice sentiment, it needs to be followed up with a serious conversation about how to restructure graduate studies so that one individual graduate advisor or lab supervisor doesn’t have so much outsized power over their students. And in cases of abuse, there need to be real ramifications for abusers. Short of that, nothing will change.

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